The Ring Goes South
The Council of Elrond decided only that Frodo must take the One Ring, and Sam go with him. Nothing is said about who else goes with him. The chapter starts with Merry and Pippin complaining at perhaps not being include.
From early versions published by Christopher Tolkien, we learn that the author always intended to include them. His first idea was to add Gandalf, Glorfindel and Frodo’s four hobbit companions – Aragorn’s role is then still occupied by Trotter the heroic hobbit:
“That is seven, and a fitting number. The Ring-bearer will have good company”.[A]
But then Boromir was considered, and also a dwarven son of Balin. For a time, the Seven would include Boromir but no elf or dwarf. Only gradually do we get the Nine Walkers, still including Boromir and with Trotter transformed into Aragorn. And with Gimli son of Gloin and the elf from the woodland realm – not originally called Legolas. Glorfindel is dropped.
Everything about Glorfindel’s presence is odd. Tolkien chose an elf from the First Age whose death is part of one of the three core stories in The Silmarillion. He then decides against him staying with Frodo. Long before I knew this, I had noted it as an anomaly. An oddity that the films correct, Bakshi having Legolas take his role and Jackson unforgettably introducing Arwen and giving her a larger role.
If I were playing it as a game, I would certainly want Gandalf, Glorfindel and Elrond guarding Frodo, as the three most powerful characters. But for Tolkien’s story-telling, it is best that first Aragorn and then Frodo be tested by having no one senior to guide them, as happened with Bilbo. In The Hobbit, Gandalf went off on a more important mission, only to return when events had grown beyond the much-enhanced Bilbo. But this time, only death can plausibly part them.
The story needs both Frodo and Aragorn to learn and grow. This mostly happens after Gandalf’s fall. To have included Glorfindel would have needed getting rid of as him well, since he was the obvious successor. Easier to have him stay in Rivendell.
Tolkien probably also realised that he could make a good point by showing the old enmity between Dwarves and Woodland Elves being overcome. Legolas was maybe first conceived just to bring news of Gollum’s escape. And it also helps to have a dwarf who has never been to Moria and sees it all as new.
There is also what I see as an irrational delay while they check to see if the Nazgul are destroyed. I’d have thought Gandalf plus Glorfindel could have seen them off, even if all nine had still been around. But they wait: and Frodo sees Mordor as a star in the far south:
“So the days slipped away, as each morning dawned bright and fair, and each evening followed cool and clear. But autumn was waning fast; slowly the golden light faded to pale silver, and the lingering leaves fell from the naked trees. A wind began to blow chill from the Misty Mountains to the east. The Hunter’s Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars. But low in the South one star shone red. Every night, as the Moon waned again, it shone brighter and brighter. Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley.”
Mars can sometimes look like that, but clearly this is the power of Sauron reaching out towards them. Dangerous despite the Nazgul’s setback at the ford.
Elrond’s people find first three of the Nazgul’s horses drowned, and then five more. Whether the ninth actually survived is left open, as is much else in Tolkien. They also find Radagast absent from his old home, though it also seems he is often not there. He is never mentioned again, though were he still alive one might hope he would have come for the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen. If I were writing an expanded version of the story, I would have him killed by agents of Saruman, whom he supposed to be on his side.
The final selection of the Nine Walkers is made:
“’There remain two more to be found,’ said Elrond. “These I will consider. Of my household I may find some that it seems good to me to send.’
“`But that will leave no place for us!’ cried Pippin in dismay. `We don’t want to be left behind. We want to go with Frodo.’
“`That is because you do not understand and cannot imagine what lies ahead,’ said Elrond.
“`Neither does Frodo,’ said Gandalf, unexpectedly supporting Pippin. ‘Nor do any of us see clearly. It is true that if these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go. But they would still wish to go, or wish that they dared, and be shamed and unhappy. I think, Elrond, that in this matter it would be well to trust rather to their friendship than to great wisdom. Even if you chose for us an elf-lord, such as Glorfindel, he could not storm the Dark Tower, nor open the road to the Fire by the power that is in him.’
“`You speak gravely,’ said Elrond, `but I am in doubt. The Shire, I forebode, is not free now from peril; and these two I had thought to send back there as messengers, to do what they could, according to the fashion of their country, to warn the people of their danger.”
But Merry and Pippin go – had always been intended to go, but it has to seem logical. A game-player would include as many hobbits as possible, to confuse Sauron and Saruman as to which might have the One Ring. Or confuse them by making it seem as if the hobbit ring-bearer is indeed heading for the sea, while also giving due warning to The Shire.
Using hobbits as ‘live bait’ is not something that Tolkien would have his heroes consider, though it does work out that way.
Nothing is said about Elrond sending someone else to give a warning. Both Buckland and Bree had been invaded by Black Riders, so they would have been listened to. If current Amazon plans for a series set between the two books leads on to a later retelling of both, you could have him sending elves to give aid and advice. And perhaps not going further after the people of Bree throw out the Ruffians. In The Shire, it is subversion from people not then suspected of being agents of Saruman.
The journey decided, Bilbo gives Frodo the mithril coat that will save his life in Moria, and set the orcs quarrelling when he is eventually captured. Bilbo also gives him the elven blade Sting. Frodo does nothing important with it, but Sam will use it to wound and drive off Shelob.
On top of that, Bilbo recites another worthy poem, of which I’ll give the start and ending:
“I sit beside the fire and think
“of all that I have seen,
“of meadow-flowers and butterflies
“in summers that have been…
“But all the while I sit and think
“of times there were before,
“I listen for returning feet
“and voices at the door.”
Very hobbitish – friends and the world’s beauty count for more than struggles over power. Power is needed to oppose evil, but is dangerous even when the intentions are good.
Not everyone can see this. Before leaving, Boromir giving clear signs of arrogance and folly when he blows his horn despite the need to be quiet and secretive.
They have with them the pony they bought from Bill Ferny in Bree:
“Spare food and clothes and blankets and other needs were laden on a pony, none other than the poor beast that they had brought from Bree.
“The stay in Rivendell had worked a great wonder of change on him: he was glossy and seemed to have the vigour of youth. It was Sam who had insisted on choosing him, declaring that Bill (as he called him) would pine, if he did not come.
“`That animal can nearly talk,’ he said, `and would talk, if he stayed here much longer. He gave me a look as plain as Mr. Pippin could speak it: if you don’t let me go with you, Sam, I’ll follow on my own.’ So Bill was going as the beast of burden, yet he was the only member of the Company that did not seem depressed.”
They set out. And go south, rather than crossing the Misty Mountains as Bilbo had. Of course had they done this, they’d have had to pass the old stronghold of the Necromancer. We learn later that this has become evil again, and stands as a threat to Lorien. But they must also avoid Saruman and the Gap of Rohan. They must head almost due south and then find a safe crossing of the Misty Mountains in its far south.
At length they see ahead of them the three big mountains that lie above Moria, and we learn that Gimli has never been there. Then they pass into Hollin, where Noldor once dwelt and made the rings.
“‘There is a wholesome air about Hollin [said Gandalf]. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves, if once they dwelt there.’
“’That is true,’ said Legolas. `But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them: Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.’”
But Aragorn sees a strangeness, like Holmes noticing ‘the dog that did not bark’ in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories. Though all seems peaceful, all is not well:
“`I miss something. I have been in the country of Hollin in many seasons. No folk dwell here now, but many other creatures live here at all times, especially birds. Yet now all things but you are silent. I can feel it. There is no sound for miles about us, and your voices seem to make the ground echo. I do not understand it.’
“Gandalf looked up with sudden interest. `But what do you guess is the reason?’ he asked. `Is there more in it than surprise at seeing four hobbits, not to mention the rest of us, where people are so seldom seen or heard?’
“`I hope that is it,’ answered Aragorn. `But I have a sense of watchfulness, and of fear, that I have never had here before.’
“Then we must be more careful,’ said Gandalf. ‘If you bring a Ranger with you, it is well to pay attention to him, especially if the Ranger is Aragorn. We must stop talking aloud, rest quietly, and set the watch.’”
Aragorn seems to be more perceptive than Gandalf, though Gandalf might be holding back to encourage the others not to rely too much on him.
Aragorn’s fears are soon realised. The countryside becomes odd and threatening, much as the Old Forrest had been much earlier:
“The silence grew until even Sam felt it. The breathing of the sleepers could be plainly heard. The swish of the pony’s tail and the occasional movements of his feet became loud noises. Sam could hear his own joints creaking, if he stirred. Dead silence was around him, and over all hung a clear blue sky, as the Sun rode up from the East. Away in the South a dark patch appeared, and grew, and drove north like flying smoke in the wind.
“`What’s that, Strider? It don’t look like a cloud,’ said Sam in a whisper to Aragorn. He made no answer, he was gazing intently at the sky; but before long Sam could see for himself what was approaching. Flocks of birds, flying at great speed, were wheeling and circling, and traversing all the land as if they were searching for something; and they were steadily drawing nearer.
“`Lie flat and still!’ hissed Aragorn, pulling Sam down into the shade of a holly-bush; for a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge. Sam thought they were a kind of crow of large size. As they passed overhead, in so dense a throng that their shadow followed them darkly over the ground below, one harsh croak was heard.”
As in The Hobbit, crows are bad news, perhaps ‘a murder of Crows serving Mordor’. Ravens would presumably be trustworthy, or at least they were at the Lonely Mountain. Here there is only the threat:
“Not until they had dwindled into the distance, north and west, and the sky was again clear would Aragorn rise. Then he sprang up and went and wakened Gandalf.
“`Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood,’ he said, `and they have passed over Hollin. They are not natives here; they are crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland. I do not know what they are about: possibly there is some trouble away south from which they are fleeing; but I think they are spying out the land. I have also glimpsed many hawks flying high up in the sky. I think we ought to move again this evening. Hollin is no longer wholesome for us: it is being watched.’
“`And in that case so is the Redhorn Gate,’ said Gandalf; `and how we can get over that without being seen, I cannot imagine. But we will think of that when we must.”
They also probably see one of the Nazgul, now mounted on flying beasts:
“It was the cold chill hour before the first stir of dawn, and the moon was low. Frodo looked up at the sky. Suddenly he saw or felt a shadow pass over the high stars, as if for a moment they faded and then flashed out again. He shivered.
“`Did you see anything pass over?’ he whispered to Gandalf, who was just ahead.
“`No, but I felt it, whatever it was,’ he answered. `It may be nothing, only a wisp of thin cloud.’
“`It was moving fast then,’ muttered Aragorn, `and not with the wind.’
Clouds can in fact be moving in different directions at different heights, with complex air currents.
Spotted or not, they must proceed along a confusing path. One can follow it on the overall map, but I wish someone would do an edition borrowing a trick from Eddings’ Belgariad: a small local map for each chapter.
They proceed, and Boromir shows he has much potential for good. He gives some good advice about how to cross the high pass of the Redhorn Gate:
“’I will add a word of advice, if I may,’ said Boromir. ‘I was born under the shadow of the White Mountains and know something of journeys in the high places. We shall meet bitter cold, if no worse, before we come down on the other side. It will not help us to keep so secret that we are frozen to death. When we leave here, where there are still a few trees and bushes, each of us should carry a faggot of wood, as large as he can bear.’
“’And Bill could take a bit more, couldn’t you lad?’ said Sam. The pony looked at him mournfully.
“’Very well,’ said Gandalf. `But we must not use the wood – not unless it is a choice between fire and death.’”
In fact they do use it. And Gandalf has to use magic to light it:
“At last reluctantly Gandalf himself took a hand. Picking up a faggot he held it aloft for a moment, and then with a word of command, naur an edraith ammen! he thrust the end of his staff into the midst of it. At once a great spout of green and blue flame sprang out, and the wood flared and sputtered.
“`If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them,’ he said. ‘I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.’”
They push on. But as you must remember from the film, the snow defeats them. Or the mountain defeats them, or Sauron defeats them:
“’I wonder if this is a contrivance of the Enemy,’ said Boromir. “They say in my land that he can govern the storms in the Mountains of Shadow that stand upon the borders of Mordor. He has strange powers and many allies.’
“’His arm has grown long indeed,’ said Gimli, `if he can draw snow down from the North to trouble us here three hundred leagues away.’
“’His arm has grown long,’ said Gandalf…
“There are many evil and unfriendly things in the world that have little love for those that go on two legs, and yet are not in league with Sauron, but have purposes of their own [said Aragorn]. Some have been in this world longer than he.’
“’Caradhras was called the Cruel, and had an ill name’, said Gimli, `long years ago, when rumour of Sauron had not been heard in these lands.’”
This contradicts the notion of Sauron being one of the original world-creating spirits. So too does Gandalf, when he returns and mentions evil creatures older than Sauron that he found deep below. And Treebeard speaks of ‘Young Saruman’, supposing himself older, which Gandalf seems to support. It all seems to fit the older version of the legends in which there were several generations of Maia. Sauron and Saruman could have been born later.
As in the Old Forrest, we see a problem with some of the Talking Peoples being at odds with the natural world. Elves manage harmony: men and dwarves mostly do not, even when their purpose remains good.
A living mountain would certainly not appreciate having a mine carved into its foundations. But that might also turn it evil, attacking any traveler regardless.
Whatever the cause, they must now seek some other way. But we get plenty of advanced warnings that Moria is bad news.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
[A] The History of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Shadow. Page 406, 1988 hardback edition.